When I first started hearing that classmates of mine from suburban New Jersey were dying of heroin overdoses, I was startled.
From the comfort of nearly 10 years out of high school and nearly 3,000 miles away, I let myself make the damaging assumption these awful deaths were a result of my peers' own poor choices, and probably not much else.
I shook the shock and the momentary heartbreak, and carried on living.
But Ben Butler was different, and I'm not entirely sure why.
I hadn't spoken to him in years, so I certainly won't try to claim ownership on any of the deep, real-time grief his friends and family members have experienced in the months since his death.
But when I found out he lost his battle with addiction, memories of our friendship throughout elementary, middle and high school flooded back to me immediately.
If you told me years ago, during one of the countless DARE classes, that at least five of my classmates would later die of heroin overdoses, I would have probably tugged uncomfortably at my Abercrombie shirt, and rolled my eyes at your melodramatic attempt to shock me.
I didn't understand the grasp the illness has on its victims, probably because addiction wasn't taught in the context of being a disease at all.
It was simply the wrong path, the path to be avoided.
But what if you are abducted and left for dead on that path?
No one ever taught us about that.
He was a deeply intelligent, funny, layered kid. Well then, maybe he shouldn't have tried heroin.
That's what someone close to me said to me when I explained what had happened to my old friend Ben and others in my town.
I felt instantly defensive of the kid I knew back then, the kid I rode the bus with and talked about music with.
I recognized an unusual kindness and depth in Ben, and I think a lot of his friends and acquaintances also noticed these traits, even then.
This person could not be dead of a heroin overdose.
I had a huge crush on Ben in eighth grade. I used to drag my friends to coincidentally walk by his house a few streets from mine, when I knew his band was practicing in his garage.
I guess none of this really justifies why his death was so jarring to me. It wasn't the first time someone from my hometown had died this way.
But it was also not lost on me that as I was across the country planning my wedding, an old friend's heartbroken parents were coordinating his funeral.
So maybe, it was a guilt-motivated decision to research addiction.
Maybe I wanted to, at the very least, change the way I think about it. Maybe I felt, for whatever subconscious, melancholy-fueled reason, I owed something to my old classmate.
After all, we came from the same place.
We had the same opportunities, the same education and the same kind of potential.
Ben's death drew a very protective, discouraged reaction out of me.
Heroin? In my town? This is still a thing that's happening? It wasn't a fluke? Defensive and determined, I decided to go to the core of this problem.
I grew up in a large New Jersey suburb about a half hour from New York City. Ours was a very large, and thus very diverse town.
There were multi-millionaires and also families on the verge of requiring public assistance. The majority of us fell somewhere pretty contentedly in the middle.
The neighborhood Ben and I grew up in wasn't a fancy one; it was just a respectable cluster of streets lined with middle-class homes and packed after-school schedules.
It's the kind of place where snow days were always cause for celebration, and in the summer, the night sky always had a kind of berry-colored tint to it.
It was an ideal backdrop for childhood to unfold upon, for kids to play outside freely, wait with bored expressions for the bus each morning and — if ambitions were running particularly high — orchestrate a lemonade stand.
From the comfort of our present, we were lucky enough to grow up optimistically planning our futures.
Heroin, when I did finally learn what it was (which was likely in one of those DARE classes), seemed like a stagnant, far away threat.
It was something that existed only in the neglected corners of the inner city, affecting only people who didn't know any better.
I laugh now at how naïve I was, but sadly, that perception still plagues a lot of people in our country.
As a culture, despite the statistics that urge us to reconsider, we still consider heroin a dirty word.
It either exists as a glorified pop-culture prop in the context of fan-favorites like "The Wire" and "American Gangster," or it is demoted to a shameful habit of those we are conditioned to consider inferior.
There isn't too much in-between; there isn't too much conversation about what this stuff is really doing to us.
Addiction operates in a way that makes a lot of us uncomfortable, and I get it. It's volatile and sinister, and its trajectory is difficult to classify.
So many of us default to the very distorted, dangerous, but reassuring opinion that drug addiction is exclusively a choice, a ramification, a result of someone else's decisions.
It's an ailment we are safe and sound from, one we will never — because we would never — be confronted with.
It's safer that way; it's less intimidating, ambiguous and certainly less stressful.
But, it's also the societal equivalent of covering our ears, closing our eyes and shouting, "La la la!" in a collective attempt to ignore the truth away.
And it's fostering an environment of judgment, shame and a widespread inability to deliver proper emotional and medical resources for the individuals who are, in fact, battling this disease.
The unpopular but irrefutable reality is addiction has no regard for race, socioeconomic status or education.
It doesn't care where you grew up or how much your parents love you.
It exists outside of those easy-to-compartmentalize factors.
It lingers in many of us but, like any illness, attacks only some.
Addiction is not limited to the poverty-stricken or the irresponsible; that's simply a lie we tell ourselves, a mutual refusal to accept it is just as likely to tangle into our lives as cancer is.
One key difference, though, is that when someone develops lung cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we don't shame them out of getting help by berating them for why they got sick in the first place.
We don't scoff at their physical ailments, and tell them to "just stop" having these diseases.
We make it clear we support them in their uphill battles to get better, to regain health and to feel whole again.
Our levels of judgment don't grow as a cancer patient's illness progresses; it doesn't play any role in the way we perceive his or her struggle.
So, why is it so difficult for us to offer that same unconditional compassion to those suffering from addiction?
The parents of addicts I've spoken with all cite shame and embarrassment as one of the biggest hurdles their loved ones had to face.
This is on top of the already-taxing challenge of watching helplessly as their children struggled to climb out from under addiction.
That's an unjust reality that gives me chills every time I think about it.
The mother of a young man dying of cancer faces countless hardships, of course, but the judgment and closeted blame of friends and neighbors is rarely one of them.
Contrary to some of the things people have said since his death, Ben was not a "loser junky."
He did not "have it coming."
He was sick.
His story and the larger, murkier story of so many others like him is not embarrassing. It is not weakness.
It is a disease. It is impacting people from all walks of life, from all zip codes.
Ben had friends in every "group." There were stoner kids, yes. So-called goth kids, sure. Future Ivy League graduates? He had those, too.
He was able to relate to everyone from his well-meaning preppy-emo hybrid neighbor, to the school's most popular jocks. He simply knew how to talk to people.
He was a caring kid who was able to speak passionately about Phish and Grateful Dead one minute, and just as passionately discuss an upcoming school trip to Hershey Park the next.
Ben was awarded a full, four-year Presidential Scholarship to college when we graduated high school.
His mom said he was elated, but he was also aware of the responsibilities the merit-based opportunity demanded.
After about two years away at school, the academic pressure became too much.
A leg injury left Ben in extreme discomfort, and so, like thousands of doctors all over the country do for pain management, his physician prescribed him Oxycodone.
Even using the medication as prescribed, Ben's addiction was nearly immediate.
He and his parents decided a leave of absence from school was best.
He needed to regroup.
Despite returning home, Ben's developing depression and dependency on opiates spiraled.
The assumption is often that heroin addicts decide to try heroin.
While that may sometimes be the case, most addicts, particularly those from middle- and upper-middle-class areas, do not gravitate willingly toward the illicit habit.
Theirs are often slow-burning addictions, sometimes the result of elective pill use, and sometimes, as in Ben's case, the result of legitimate consumption of a legal medication for a valid pain reason.
Oxycodone was originally developed in the 1900s.
The synthesized drug was formulated with the intent of providing similar effects to heroin and morphine, but with less chance of dependency.
Time has proven that goal to be futile. Although drug manufacturers have made some efforts to combat the rampant abuse by introducing extended-release versions, recreational prescription pill abuse is still on the rise.
Oxycodone remains the leader of the pack.
All over the country, the highly addictive but legal drug is being abused at alarming rates.
Since 2000, the rate of heroin and opiate overdoses has nearly quadrupled.
Prescription drug abuse is the single most common cause of injury-related death in the United States.
More people die each year from drug overdoses in our country than from car accidents.
Wait, what? Maybe it is our problem after all.
In recent years, Oxy has become a favorite of an onslaught of upper-income users. Since Oxy is legal, obtaining the drug, especially in the context of middle-class neighborhoods, really isn't that difficult.
Opiates are easily found in the bathroom cabinets of parents' rooms, from classmates and even on demand by delivery services catering to higher-end clientele.
Oxycodone is the most abused pharmaceutical drug in the United States, and thanks to prescription forgery, overprescribing and pill mills, its grasp is only getting stronger and broader.
Despite revised FDA labels urging doctors to refrain from prescribing Oxycodone to patients with moderate, temporary pain, medical professionals are under no legal obligation to limit the rate at which they prescribe the opiate.
Recently, an extended-release formula has even been approved for use in children as young as 11 years old.
Even with increased efforts being made in recent years to shut down pill mills and implement reformulated, harder-to-abuse versions of the medication, the reality is opiates live all around us.
With over 52 million Americans admitting to abusing prescription pills at least once in their lifetimes, it's glaringly clear this problem is in every school system. It's in every affluent neighborhood and every zip code.
Still, even though accessibility to Oxy is not the problem for users once they get addicted, it's a nearly-impossible to sustain habit.
Oxycodone pills, dosage dependent, can cost up to $100 a pill.
As addicts develop a greater tolerance to the drug's effects, their bodies' increased demand quickly extends beyond their financial means.
From the perspective of an already-addicted opiate user, heroin — which produces a similar if not stronger high at a fraction of the cost — doesn't seem as crazy as it might have to his or her former self in DARE class years prior.
The similarities between these two drugs are such that individuals who abuse Oxycodone are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin.
But while a prescription pill addiction strains addicts financially, transitioning to a heroin addiction presents its own uniquely hazardous obstacles.
Switching to heroin provides addicts with a comparable, and at this point, chemically necessary high, but the cost-effective swap comes at the expense of his or her peace of mind.
Oxycodone, though still exceptionally life threatening when misused, is at least manufactured and examined in strictly regulated facilities.
Heroin, unsurprisingly, adheres to no such process.
The absence of a uniformed production method means addicts really have no way of knowing for sure what they're getting.
Since suppliers cut heroin with a variety of hazardous fillers at their own discretion, anything from baby formula to heavy duty sleeping pills might make its way into an addict's daily fix.
When each batch has the potential to be so dramatically different than the last, it's impossible to predict how your body will react.
That lack of transparency and inability to guarantee consistency contributes to the drug's infamously precarious reputation.
Most used among 18- to 25-year-old Caucasian males, heroin is essentially the wild wild west of street drugs.
Each batch is its own gamble. Each high has its own intensity.
There are no industry standards, no benchmarks or approved ingredients.
It's a complete crapshoot, and that's the reason so many more people are accidentally overdosing than ever before.
Although prescription pain overdoses still surpass those of heroin, the drug's erratic nature is ultimately what makes it so dangerous.
When a strung-out stranger frantically knocked on their front door one night demanding money, Ben's mother, Cindi Butler's, previously uncertain concerns about his recently dejected behavior ballooned into full-blown panic.
I would come home from work to find that he hadn't even left bed. Of course, the knock on the door made everything click. I told him to pull up his sleeves and I saw the track marks. He was horrified and so ashamed. I was scared to death.
Ben was forcibly placed in rehab shortly thereafter.
For the next four years, he would be in and out of facilities seven times, always seeming optimistic upon his release.
The fatal overdoses of Hollywood stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith in recent years brought the issue of drug use to the forefront of people's minds for a while.
But even the deaths of high-profile addicts are often met with shrugs and sighs after the initial shock has cleared.
Ben's mother explained the stigma that exists surrounding opiate abuse, particularly in suburban areas:
People aren't comfortable talking about it, which makes the addict and their families even more isolated and desperate. I used to be so afraid any time I thought Ben was going to go into the city to get more. He would just look at me, so sad but so matter of fact, and say, 'Mom, I don't have to go to the city. It's all around us. It's right here in this neighborhood.'
Ben's mother described his experiences with rehab as largely positive, especially immediately after completing a program:
There was always an optimism and a real clarity about him, but it never lasted. The ugly monster reeled him back in every single time.
His drug counselors relayed largely positive news to his parents, as Ben progressed through various programs:
He would help everyone around him at the expense of himself; he gave such great advice to fellow addicts, advice that he just couldn't follow himself.
When Ben was in rehab locally, his parents drove up every weekend to visit. They even made sure to bring along his beloved labradoodle.
For his mom, finding parents facing the same harrowing reality was a huge source of comfort, even when her son was still alive:
Losing Ben has been a hard, terrible time. But I want it to be known that the four years leading up to his death were almost just as hard. It was a slow death.
Cindi Butler started attending a local NARCONON group, an organization intended to offer support and resources for family members and friends watching a loved one suffer from narcotics addiction.
Being around others going through similar situations helped her deal with the unpredictable, frightening presence of her son's addiction, but it wasn't enough to keep the illness from spiraling.
Desperate to maintain his habit at any cost, Ben stole several cars, his parents' cash, jewelry and other family heirlooms.
When a police officer questioned the the family one day about various missing items, Ben's parents made a difficult decision.
A lot of the items they showed us pictures of, we recognized. They were ours. But there were also some that weren't. Things that belonged to other people and meant something to other families. We were desperate to use this as a chance to keep him safe.
Ben's parents pressed charges against their son, a decision his family says Ben surprisingly understood:
He knew he was hurting us. He hated it. He hated us having to deal with this and seeing him like that. He knew we did what we thought we had to do to save him.
After spending several weeks in jail, even missing Christmas with his family, Ben was granted temporary release to attend a rehab program in Florida.
After what by all accounts was a successful stint, a clean Ben returned to New Jersey to address his legal issues. He moved into a monitored halfway house, and began working at his father's company.
Ben's mother recalls of his return to the North East:
It seemed to have stuck that time.
Ben was driven to work each morning, driven back to the house each night and spent time only with his father in-between.
Ben had tried Narcotics Anonymous multiple times in past, but found the religious element of the popular 12-step program difficult to commit to.
His mother said:
He questioned it too much. He was always a complex thinker, and that's a hard program to go into when you have that kind of mindset.
Despite not responding to NA, for a couple of weeks, Ben seemed to be doing okay.
His new routine was straightforward, and he seemed focused on the long term.
Once he had saved enough money from his job — all earnings were collected by halfway house administrators — the hope was he would be able to get his own apartment and be able to start over.
But, it never happened that way.
As soon as he got his first paycheck, Ben didn't return to the halfway house.
His body was found on the outskirts of the elementary school he and I attended together.
Dead of an apparent heroin overdose at 26, Ben became at least the fifth high school graduate from our school to have died in such a way.
Ben's mother said of her son's death:
It still feels like an awful dream.
She stopped attending NARCONON meetings, feeling she "no longer belonged."
Instead, she began going to meetings at GRASP, a grief support group for parents who lost children to addiction, started by the mother of another boy in my graduating class who died of a heroin overdose.
Some weeks we cry. Some weeks we laugh. We just try to see each other through.
Unlike many parents whose children are taken by addiction, Ben's family has not tried to conceal their son's struggles:
At the funeral, I wanted it included in the eulogy. It was important to me. We're not hiding anything. We are not ashamed. He was sick.
Still, she understands why people are so reluctant to look addiction in the eyes and confront it as a societal problem.
If someone had told us 10, even five years ago that this would happen, we would have laughed in their face. You never think it'll be your kid. You never think it'll be your problem. But the fact is, it can be.
No one elects to be addicted to heroin. No one chooses to die alone, outside, just feet away from the very building in which he or she attended school as a first grader.
No one deserves to be defined by his or her disease, even when that disease is addiction, even when that disease isn't taken seriously by much of society and even when that disease ultimately wins.
I wish I could say that in sharing Ben's story and further educating myself on the nuances of addicts and their families, I've somehow stumbled upon an idea for how to eradicate the problem, but that's just not the case.
Perhaps — rather than a suggestion for how to solve the rampant heroin epidemic in our country, in our childhood neighborhoods and in the homes of our smartest friends — all of this is simply a plea for us to acknowledge it exists at all.